Your Village: Why there’s a statue of a nude woman facing the Iowa State Capitol

An inscription above Des Moines’ infamous bronze woman reads, “Iowa, her affections, like the rivers of her borders flow to an inseparable union.” — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

My friend says he read somewhere that Des Moines has the most erotic statue in the world. I moved here a few months ago, and have seen zero erotic statues. Do you know what he’s talking about? —CG, Des Moines

It’s probably not the most erotic statue in the world, but in his iconic memoir about growing in Des Moines in the ’50s and early ’60s, Bill Bryson did describe a 7-foot-tall bronze figure on the grounds of the Iowa State Capitol as “the most erotic statue in the nation.”

“Called ‘Iowa,’ it depicts a seated woman, who is holding her bare breasts in her hands, cupped from beneath in a startlingly provocative manner,” Bryson wrote in The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (2006).

The statue is part of the Iowa Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, which commemorates the 76,534 Iowans who fought in the Civil War. Of course, Civil War monuments aren’t known for being erotic, and this one didn’t start out that way.

Iowa contributed more troops per capita to the Union Army than any other state, so a large, official memorial would be expected. But 13 years after the end of the war, there was still no official state monument. James Harlan was determined to change that.

Harlan was a significant figure in Iowa politics. Born in Illinois, he moved to Iowa City after graduating from college in Indiana in 1845, and was appointed the city’s school superintendent. In 1853, he moved to Mount Pleasant, where he spent two years as president of Iowa Wesleyan University. He left after being elected to the U.S. Senate, and represented Iowa for 10 years before President Lincoln appointed him Secretary of the Interior. He served for just over a year before returning to the Senate for one final term.

In 1888, Harlan successfully pushed the Iowa Legislature to create a monument commission, and immediately became one of its leaders. The commission began accepting designs for a war memorial, and offered $500 for the best design. Artists from across the state and around the country submitted plans. In June 1889, the commission selected the design by Harriet Ketcham of Mount Pleasant.

Ketcham had an established reputation as a sculptor in Iowa art circles, but her selection was still a surprise. If anyone thought Ketcham had an unfair advantage because she was friends with Harlan, had attended Iowa Wesleyan and once sculpted a flattering bust of the former senator, they were polite enough not to say so publicly.

Most of the submitted designs featured a towering column topped by a flag or the statue of a soldier or a Nike (the Greek winged goddess of victory, not the sneaker). Ketcham’s was more basic: a general on horseback on top of a temple-shaped plinth. The plinth was to be flanked by two generic soldier statues and feature an allegorical female figure, one that was fully clothed and completely unerotic.
Ketcham’s design was widely panned when it was published. Too small, too lacking in grandeur. She started revising it.

The general was moved from the center of the temple-like plinth, and became one of four generals on horseback along its edges. A towering column took his place, with a wingless figure of victory at its top. Two large bas-reliefs, one depicting a battle and one of soldiers returning home, were added, as were 35 medallions featuring images of various veterans.

“Ketcham’s design also called for two more female allegorical figures on either end of the base of the monument,” Louise Rosenfield Noun wrote in her 1986 essay on the monument.

The first was History as a maternal figure reading to a child. The other was “a mourning Iowa placing garlands on a funeral urn.” Both would change before the monument was unveiled. History changed a little; Mourning Iowa changed a lot.

The “Iowa Mourning” figure sits on the north side of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil War Monument at 1001 East Walnut St, Des Moines, opposite the State Capitol Building. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Ketcham never saw the finished monument. She died in 1890, and the Iowa Legislature didn’t approve funding for construction until 1892. In 1894, the commission hired Carl Rohl-Smith, a Danish-born sculptor living in Chicago, to complete the work. The commission chose Rohl-Smith not because they admired his work or his artistic vision, but because he submitted the lowest bid.

Rohl-Smith was supposed to stick to Ketcham’s design. He didn’t. When commission members saw sketches of his revisions, most were outraged. Especially Harlan.

Even by 19th-century standards, James Harlan was a prude. As Secretary of the Interior, he searched the desks of his clerks at night, looking for signs of inappropriate behavior. One night he found a book of poetry. Harlan flipped through it, shocked by the poems and by what the clerk had written in the margins. Harlan fired the clerk the next day, declaring such “filth” had no place in government.

The clerk was Walt Whitman. The book was Leaves of Grass, which Whitman was revising. Whitman got another job, Harlan became a footnote in literary history.

The commission eventually accepted Rohl-Smith’s revisions, but Harlan stayed mad for the rest of his life. In a speech he gave three months before his death in 1899, Harlan complained about “deformities” in the monument caused by the “misconception” of an artist “born and educated in the north of Europe.”

When work on the monument finished in 1898, the commission decided not to hold a dedication ceremony.

Many of its members disliked it. So did much of the public. Veterans complained about a number of things, including the monument’s location and whose images were memorialized on the medallions. But most of the criticism focused on the revised figure of Iowa, which was called “too lewd.”

The official guidebook to the monument published in 1898 described the Iowa statue as a “beautiful, youthful mother offering nourishment to her children,” and said it was an appropriate symbol of “our young and vigorous state.” The guidebook said anyone who views it is “elevated by its purity of suggestion,” and claimed “great art critics” had declared it “one of the finest art conceptions in America.” The guidebook did not, however, name any of those art critics.

“Too lewd” or a “beautiful, youthful” symbol of our state? The public couldn’t reach a consensus in 1898, and they aren’t likely to in 2023. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Regardless of what critics thought, the statue did gain a following among generations of adolescent boys in Des Moines, as Bryson indicates. But even that admiration had its limits.

“[I]t was a long way to cycle just to see some copper tits,” Bryson recalled.

The tits are bronze, not copper. And they remain just where Rohl-Smith placed them: on the north side of the monument, pointed directly at the Iowa State Capitol.

This article was originally published in Little Village’s February 2023 issues.